Welcome to The Loaded Die, a new biweekly feature here at the Kraken where your host, Kyu (that’s me!) reviews three new board games in every delicious post.
For each game, I’ll give an overview of what it is, a description of how to play, and my subjective thoughts (typically based on a single play-through). Looking for numerical ratings? Generate your own with our helpful guide! Simply roll the listed number and type of dice to discover your personalized rating. Remember, it’s not a meaningless number if you believe in it.
This week we’ll begin with three very different games.
Pathfinder Adventure Card Game: Rise of the Runelords
What is it?
Pathfinder is a card game adaptation of the Dungeons and Dragons variant roleplaying system of the same name. It’s your standard dungeon crawler–fight bad guys, face challenges, nab loot and upgrade your wizard/warrior/ranger/whatever. The coolest aspect is that you can take the same team of heroes through a number of different scenarios, becoming stronger and taking on stronger foes over the course of a long campaign.
How do you play?
Each player gets a deck of equipment, spells and other items according to their hero sheet. Other decks are built for each of a handful of locations per scenario; then players take turns flipping over the top card of a location deck and resolving it. If a monster comes up, you fight; if it’s an obstacle, you attempt to bypass it; if it’s loot, you attempt to claim it–all through rolling different dice based on your character’s statistics and skills. Players can choose which location to face, attempting to find and corner the scenario’s boss villain or to close off locations so that the villain can’t escape. Damage forces you to discard cards, and as you use up items and take hits, you deplete both your deck and the options remaining to it. If your deck zeroes out, you die, and if the scenario’s countdown reaches zero, everyone loses. Win and you can keep the items and experience you’ve gained for the next scenario.
So is it good or what?
I had mixed feelings about this one. My friends and I tried the introductory scenario and found it exceptionally difficult. Some of the mechanics, particularly the card economy, are ill-suited to single scenarios, only making sense if you’re going to carry on with a long campaign. The deckbuilding aspects were interesting, though, and I liked the way the villain worked. The game would have been more fun without the clock, though; I always prefer the freedom to explore and grow in my RPGs. What was there was fun, but the overall experience was dissatisfying, too reliant on dice rolls and too constricted for my taste.
Probably the real issue is that I’m just not a fan of DnD, as a system or a universe. There are a vast multitude of dungeon crawlers out there, and even quite a few cooperative ones. Pathfinder doesn’t really stand out, except by its campaign aspects, and if I wanted to play one of those I have a half-dozen other options, from Galaxy Defenders to Mice & Mystics to Descent: Journeys in the Dark. Pathfinder is obviously very popular with some people, but for me it just isn’t worth picking up. It’s too difficult to play one scenario at a time, and not interesting enough to invest the time it would take to do a campaign. Ultimately, although I wouldn’t mind playing it again, I’m not eager, either.
What is it?
Medina is one of those Arabian-themed Euro games that focus on placing primary color pieces in order to create and score sets whose title begins with the letter “M.” I guess my point is it reminded me of Marrakech. Maybe there are more of them? So far it is a very decent subsubsubsubsubgenre.
How do you play?
Players take turns placing various pieces (buildings, walls, shoppers and stands) in order to build a marketplace. There are very specific rules on what can be placed adjacent to what, so there’s plenty of strategy in terms of arranging the right sets and blocking your opponents. Players claim sets of a particular color with those hat pieces you can see in the picture there, and then score those sets based on how many of which type pieces surround them.
So is it good or what?
Pretty good! This is definitely a Euro game, an overarching categorization defined less by geographic origin than by the qualities of balance, elegance, simplicity, abstractness, and how much of the game is about having the most points. Unlike most Euro games, which typically derive both balance and tension by combining hidden score-altering mechanics with visible score progression (so that anyone can secretly be winning), Medina lays it all out. Even with our three-person game, the tiny board and intricate placement rules made for a cramped space in which other players’ actions quickly box you in; meanwhile, you can see exactly how well they’re doing. So despite the simplicity of the game, it became a unusually cutthroat experience as players jockeyed for position. The most interesting mechanic is the way all players build colored sets of market stalls not for themselves but for anyone who cares to claim them–leading to a kind of abstracted wager, where the larger the set, the more points it’s worth, but the more likely it is that someone else will claim it.
I’m not particularly a fan of Euro games, since they tend to have very weak thematic elements. (One gets the sense that most Euro games could be reskinned to be “about” anything at all–which makes you wonder why they all seem to be about building castles in 16th century France.) In general I prefer games that model something (and further, something fantastical) to games whose rules creating interesting player interactions, although both at once is my ideal. So for me to like a Euro, it has to have something a little special. Visual presentation helps, and Medina is reasonably pretty. But it also strikes a great blend of scoring rules that are simple enough to grasp but complicated enough to use against your opponents. It’s true that the game isn’t really about building a market; it’s just an abstract system of pieces and rules. But that system resulted in an unusually tense and fun experience. I could ask for more; but I’ve also gotten less. Medina is a solid, middle of the road game that also happens to bring the single best trait of all Euro games: accessibility.
What is it?
Gentlemen Thieves is not, take note, the other board game of the same name and release year. That game (which I have not played) looks like a storytelling game. This Gentlemen Thieves is a placement and deduction game, loosely inspired by the classic short fiction starring Arsene Lupin by Maurice Leblanc, which I gather is all about suave fellows in capes burgling one another and then laughing about it over glasses of port. This board game does not include the port, but it aptly models the experience of being a classy, sneaky dude trying to beat other classy, sneaky dudes to the treasure.
How do you play?
First, you stare at the gorgeous artwork. Then you get down to the business of theft. Each player is secretly and randomly assigned to play one of 5 thieves. Then the 5 thieves are divided into two unequal teams. Players take turns drawing chips (representing the tools of the burglar’s trade) and placing them on five locations targeted for theft. When a location has one or more of every type of tool, the location is burgled and its treasure gets divided evenly among whichever team’s colors are the majority represented on the chips. Thus, players can see which thief is winning but must deduce from the moves of her opponents who is who and who is a neutral thief played by no one. When the chips run out, the game ends and whichever player’s thief has the most loot wins.
So is it good or what?
Fantastic. The combination of deduction, placement, and the other mechanics in the game is, as far as I know, unique. The presentation is impeccable and the theme well represented. The game really illustrates the value of compact design: for instance, the tool chips you place on the burglary targets are, when turned over, the treasure the thieves are absconding with. This isn’t just neat or something that saves them from printing two types of chips; it becomes a vital part of the game to consider. The same applies to the other aspects of the chip placement game. Board games are all about interesting choices, and in Gentlemen Thieves there are always plenty of options, motivations, and clues to consider. Do I place these gloves here, to get closer to stealing the contents of the bank vault? Or do I place them there, where gloves already exist, in order to help shift the color balance back in favor of my team–or to increase the amount of treasure available in a space I know my team will win? And unlike more one-sided games of deduction (Mr. Jack, or Fury of Dracula), you’re trying to hide your own identity while ferreting out everyone else’s. It’s simply smashing great fun.
The other great thing about the game is its length. It may seem somewhat paradoxical, but often in a board game, shorter is better. A shorter game creates a more tightly focused experience, makes up for balance issues (was that play-through unfairly difficult? run it again!), and increases accessibility, not to mention the general likelihood that the game will get played again at all. On the upper end of the spectrum is something like Twilight Imperium, an insanely complicated game that took my group about 12 hours to play, no joke. On the other end you find a game like Gentlemen Thieves, which knows the importance of including an in-game clock that’s visible to all players. Here, the timer mechanic is that somewhere in the last handful of tool chips is a police officer, who will naturally put an end to all the pilfering. The more players pull from the chip stack, the closer the officer gets, which makes for a wonderful tense endgame, with people calculating precisely how much silverware they can stuff down their dress pants before the cop arrives sometime in the next three to five turns. Quick, thrilling, fascinating, and debonair: that’s Gentlemen Thieves to a T.
That’s it for this entry! Come back in two weeks for more board game action.